by Alison Parker
Most people in fiction editing have trotted out the line “Show; don’t tell.” But how often does that line by itself make authors or editors improve in their craft?
I’m not denying that the line is great in theory. There’s a lot of great theory out there — start with Aristotle’s Poetics. Heck, if you deal with fiction, you have doubtless amassed quite a number of practical books on plot, character, emotion, description, and so on. I certainly have, but when I try to read these books, my eyes usually glaze over. The ideas might be practical, but they’re too often neither engaging nor inspiring. And that’s a big “fail.” It is important for authors and editors to understand how to create excitement in a reader, and how to make a reader want to continue to the end, whether the end is the end of the single book or the end of a twelve-book series. And it’s important to make authors and editors see and feel the principles and not just think them.
How to Teach Fiction?
If I ever found myself in front of a creative writing class, I’d use the old high school English teachers’ method of “compare and contrast” and make the students look at one of my favorite children’s books: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was once considered a leading light in realist fiction for adults and whose book The Secret Garden is still frequently taught in children’s literature classes. What should make that exercise interesting is that the book, which was published in 1905, started out as a magazine novella in 1888. And the original grew immeasurably over those intervening years. It’s not easy to find published books or stories that change so radically, and for the better, in less than two decades.
Major Changes: Character and Drama
You’ll find two major differences between the novella — Sara Crewe, or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School — and the novel that it became seventeen years later. First, the heroine is much more sympathetic in the later telling. Second, and more important, the book has incorporated a lot more drama in the course of its expansion. Why? The author was asked to turn the initial story into a play, which began its run a couple of years before she expanded her story into a novel. In the three-act play (for a description, see Roderick McGillis’s A Little Princess: Gender and Empire, 5–7), new characters are added, principally little girls as friends and foils, and the rat that Sara tames in her dingy attic makes its debut. And scholars have pointed out that writing it helped Burnett to change the bare-bones tale of Sara’s growth and salvation into something much more gripping.
In the 1888 story, the heroine is a spoiled little princess, so to speak, with all the advantages of youth and wealth. In fewer than a thousand words, we read mainly dry narrative about her privileged childhood and her obscenely rich and doting but feckless father, Captain Crewe, who takes her reluctantly to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in London because the climate in India can be brutal and Sara’s mother died long ago. Not many years later, he dies destitute, seemingly betrayed by his best friend. And so his beloved daughter is left to the mercy of the schoolmistress, who shows her no mercy once the money is gone. Those thousand words that open the original story run to less than a sixteenth of the whole. Only two times in the beginning narrative does anyone say anything, and those quotes can’t be called dialogue as no one responds.
When Burnett rewrote her tale, the beginning of the original story expanded to a third of the novel. And the space isn’t wasted. Though much of it is still expository, and with an omniscient narrator to boot, the narrator throws herself into the action.
The Princess Learns Politeness
Let’s consider the study of French, an important subject for all young ladies who wished to snare respectable husbands. In the novella, we hear almost nothing about the subject until the evil Miss Minchin says that Sara will soon be earning her keep by teaching the language to the youngest pupils. The newly impoverished princess is pissed off:
“I can speak French better than you, now,” said Sara; “I always spoke it with my papa in India.” Which was not at all polite, but was painfully true; because Miss Minchin could not speak French at all, and, indeed, was not in the least a clever person.
That’s not nice, and in the revision, we see the information dramatized in the second chapter, “A French Lesson.” We’re now in Sara’s first day of school, and the other students are fascinated as the show pupil, the little girl dressed up in absurd clothes by her indulgent father and whom Miss Minchin intends to trot around as proof that this seminary is higher class than it is, comes into the schoolroom and is seated in the place of honor. Lavinia, who once had that honor (and who had no name in the novella), is angry, of course, and that will play out later. But for now, the rigid schoolmistress makes unfortunate assumptions about Sara, and when Sara tries to say something, she’s shut off and forced to read an elementary French grammar. She doesn’t want to be nasty to Miss Minchin. But when the language teacher arrives, Sara speaks to him in fluent French in a desperate attempt to explain that she doesn’t have what Miss Minchin claimed was a childish prejudice against the language. Other pupils titter, and Miss Minchin, who had been afraid that everyone would learn about her inability to speak French, now starts to despise her prize pupil. And when Sara no longer appears to be a prize — Miss Minchin views everyone in terms of money — the schoolmistress’s anger increases the drama, and the conflict between her and her former show pupil keeps growing.
From Greed to Giving
Another striking difference in scene styling and in the heroine’s nature shows up in the character of Ermengarde. In the 1888 story, when Sara meets the overweight and introverted Ermengarde, our heroine thinks of the girl with contempt — until she sees the nice books that Ermengarde had received from her brilliant but pushy father.
There was also a fat, dull pupil, whose name was Ermengarde St. John, who was one of her resources. Ermengarde had an intellectual father, who, in his despairing desire to encourage his daughter, constantly sent her valuable and interesting books, which were a continual source of grief to her. Sara had once actually found her crying over a big package of them.
“What is the matter with you?” she asked her, perhaps rather disdainfully.
And it is just possible she would not have spoken to her, if she had not seen the books.
But in the novel, Sara is outraged at the bullying that Ermengarde has been subjected to, and the heroine takes the poor girl under her wings. The third chapter of the book is named “Ermengarde,” and Sara is all sweetness and sympathy to her unfortunate classmate, who can’t pronounce French to save her life.
When lessons were over and the pupils gathered together in groups to talk, Sara looked for Miss St. John, and finding her bundled rather disconsolately in a window-seat, she walked over to her and spoke. She only said the kind of thing little girls always say to each other by way of beginning an acquaintance, but there was something friendly about Sara, and people always felt it.
“What is your name?” she said.
To explain Miss St. John’s amazement one must recall that a new pupil is, for a short time, a somewhat uncertain thing; and of this new pupil the entire school had talked the night before until it fell asleep quite exhausted by excitement and contradictory stories. A new pupil with a carriage and a pony and a maid, and a voyage from India to discuss, was not an ordinary acquaintance.
“My name’s Ermengarde St. John,” she answered.
“Mine is Sara Crewe,” said Sara. “Yours is very pretty. It sounds like a story book.”
“Do you like it?” fluttered Ermengarde. “I—I like yours.”
The original story has excellent moments — without them, it wouldn’t have been published in the first place — but it doesn’t give us a suspenseful buildup to Sara’s second reversal of fortune, which the novel slices and dices up, and juices for all it’s worth. Instead, the novella puts this essential part of the plot, like the beginning, into narrative, not drama.
Although the “princess” story in its original form remains fascinating, rather on the order of tales someone just rattles off — “… and then she … and then she …” — it doesn’t engage your heart and your brain in the way the play-influenced revision and expansion does.
In this essay, I’ve focused mainly on the way Burnett increased the drama within scenes and helped turn a magazine story into what is considered a children’s classic. Next time we’ll treat something more important to the book’s reputation, effective plotting. After that, we’ll get back to the problem of character, both in Burnett’s works and further afield.
Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.